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Every game is a playoff for the Brookhaven Panthers

Last week, the Brookhaven High School Panthers football team went up to Wingfield and won a playoff game that wasn’t really the playoffs.

Tonight they’ll face South Jones in a home playoff matchup at 7 p.m. that isn’t really the playoffs, either. And next week, they’ll make the trip over to Laurel for a playoff game that, although pretty important, isn’t a playoff game.

At least, not a normal calendar. On head coach Tommy Clopton’s calendar, the labels are different.

“This time of year, every game is like a playoff game,” he said. “Our guys understand the seriousness of where we are in the season. We talk about it frequently — staying focused.”

There have been lots of distractions for Brookhaven in 2017. On-the-field distractions have largely been dealt with, as the Panthers (8-1, 5-0) have traveled around the state leaving a trail of victories, especially in Region 3-5A. The opening game was just a small wound — off-the-field distractions have made other wounds for the team, wounds that may take a long time to heal. Maybe they won’t.

But this is an elite football team, and as the 2017 season draws to a conclusion, the Panthers control their own post-season destiny, with every game — only regional foes remain — taking on more and more importance.

Tonight, the Panthers and their supporters have to dry their eyes, tighten up and welcome a new challenger: the South Jones Braves (7-3, 3-2) from Ellisville, who can’t knock the home team out of the playoffs, but can make the journey much, much harder.

The teams appear to mirror one another. South Jones junior quarterback John Mitchell has passed for 1,145 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and has a pair of senior receivers — Shiwon Lovett and Cade Locklear — approaching 400 receiving yards each.

If Mitchell’s arm gets tired, he runs. The quarterback is second on his team in rushing with 685 yard and 10 touchdowns, and he’s backed up by a powerful running back in senior Ricky Boleware, who has rushed for 836 yards and seven touchdowns.

Clopton is wary, expecting a heavy dose of rushing from South Jones and extravagant blitzes from its varied defense.

“They play very hard, and they’re very well coached. We’ll have our hands full,” he said. “We’ll have to play extremely well to beat them, and that’s not coach-speak.”

The Panthers have their own weapons, of course, and plenty of them are on defense. Sophomore Byrion Robinson, junior D.J. Durr and senior Jeffery Johnson all have 50 or more tackles each, with Durr and Johnson having dirtied up opposing quarterbacks three or more times each.

As far as passing defense goes, eight Panther defenders have recorded interceptions this season, with junior Wesley Calcote, senior Jemaurian Jones and Robinson having two a piece.

And of course the Brookhaven offense has just as many — and in some categories, more — yards and touchdowns as South Jones.

With such an even matchup, Clopton is reminding his Panthers to simply continue being the Panthers.

“We’ve played nine games. We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said. “At this point in the season you’ve seen just about everything that can come at you. It’s going to come down to who can execute at the highest level.”

If the Panthers execute at the highest level, they will secure home-field advantage for the playoffs. If South Jones is victorious, Brookhaven’s post-season picture will be painted by next week’s opponent, the Mustangs of West Jones (7-2, 5-0).

And if the final two weeks of the season both turn sour and the Panthers fall to both Joneses, the playoff picture gets complicated with a three-way tie.

Clopton wants none of that.

“Right now we’re focusing on South Jones, then we’ll deal with West Jones when the time comes,” he said.